In the United States, the mere mention of charging people more for their driving habits draws apoplectic responses. Highway tolls are a way of life, but anything more? Ridiculous! Even a proposal to bill cars for entering Manhattan—-which has worked in London to great effect—-never got off the ground.

In the Washington area, though, traffic has gotten bad enough and budgets strained enough that policymakers might be open to the idea of building costs into commuter behavior, which eggheads have already determined could be one of the only ways to reduce congestion and finance transportation improvements without hurting the economy. With that in mind, a couple years ago, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments decided to commission some research into what might work and how to win over a skeptical public. 

Today, the COG transit team (whom you can read all about in the Washingtonian) will finish the last of five sessions in each part of the region with a total of about 300 people selected for demographic diversity. In the focus groups, participants are presented with three scenarios: A highway toll network, a “vehicle miles traveled” taxation scheme that would require placing a GPS transponder on each vehicle, and a zone system akin to London’s.

In the suburban sessions that have happened so far—-today’s is for D.C., and could return very different results—-the reactions haven’t been positive.

“It’s safe to say they’re not enthusiastic about these pricing options,” says John Swanson, principal transportation planner with COG, noting that the Big Brother-ish VMT idea has been particularly disliked. “Some of them, their opposition seems to be intractable.”

But that was to be expected. What Swanson would really like to know is how opinions might change as different information is introduced—-which is why COG went with America Speaks’ interactive focus group model, rather than a simple phone survey. “The main hypothesis is that as people have a chance to learn about interesting problems, and options for change, and talk to each other, their opinions can evolve over the course of four hours,” Swanson says. “That’s really what we’re looking at.”

One interesting outcome: The more they talk about congestion pricing schemes, the more open they become to the idea of a gas tax, which seems like a simple and fair way to increase the cost of driving. After today, Swanson will digest the mountain of data into a final report on what he heard.

Of course, COG has a long way to go before suburban jurisdictions stop choking on the whole concept, and they’re conducting the research with no eye to the question of political feasibility—-in the hopes that the right kind of pitch to a better-informed populace might eventually do the trick.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery